This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
The Yankees went out and blew past their self-imposed $189 million cap last offseason in an attempt to return the playoffs after a rare year out of October. After the high-priced signings of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, 2014 produced a step back in the win column as the Yankees missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season for the first time since the early 1990s. Rather than pursue any high-priced free agents, including some of their own (namely David Robertson), the main hope for improvement in 2015 lies in their ability to stay healthy and get more productive seasons out of their aged-30 plus veterans, particularly Mark Teixeira (who produced a .216 average last season), Brian McCann (.232/.286/.406 slash line), and Carlos Beltran (.233/.301/.402).
With all the clutter in the AL East, it's entirely possible the Yankees could finish anywhere from first place and 90 wins if everything breaks right or last place and their first sub-.500 season since 1992 if they don't. As important as getting a bounce back season from some of the more expensive bats in the lineup is, the ability to get consistent innings out of their starting pitchers could be the biggest x-factor. While they were able to patch together a surprisingly competent rotation last season given their injury woes, for the Yankees to contend this season they will almost certainly need to get more than the 258.2 combined innings they got last year out of their top three pitchers in CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Michael Pineda.
While both the Red Sox and Blue Jays had busy offseasons that should vault them into being division title contenders, the Orioles are likely to take a step back after losing a couple of key pieces in moves that will leave the AL East race wide open. For the Yankees though, it's hard to envision their relatively quiet offseason and reliance on better health leading them to take advantage.
Robertson filled in as the heir apparent as Mariano Rivera's successor for just one season, and by and large succeeded in the role recording 39 saves and posting an impressive 13.4 K/9. While the Yankees expressed interest in re-signing the 29-year-old, his four-year $40-plus million price tag was more than they were willing to dole out with capable replacement Dellin Betances waiting in the wings. The Yanks were also hopeful they could bring back McCarthy, who filled in admirably after a midseason acquisition as he posted a 2.89 ERA in his 14 starts in pinstripes. They do have some pitching depth if everyone can stay healthy, and so the 31-year-old is headed to the Dodgers instead. There was never any real attempt to retain Ichiro, and he'll head to the National League for the first time in his career to continue his pursuit of 3,000 hits in the MLB.
Signed free agent Andrew Miller (Orioles)
It was an unusually quiet free agency period for the Yankees, even with a trio of marquee starting pitchers available, but they did make one relatively sizable splash as they bolstered their bullpen with Miller. The departure of Robertson leaves a vacancy in the ninth inning and Miller will enter spring training in competition with Betances for the closer role, though it's also possible manager Joe Girardi elects to go on a more batter-to-batter situation here with the righty and lefty. Regardless of how it plays out, the pair should combine to provide the Yanks with one of the better bullpen duos in the league.
Signed free agent Scott Baker (Rangers) to a minor league deal
After losing four of their five starting pitchers in the Opening Day rotation to injury at some point last season, the Yankees have looked to add more arms in case they face a similar fate again this season. Baker probably won't get many, if any starts, but it's possible he sees some time out of the bullpen.
Cervelli had another impressive, albeit injury plagued, season as the Yankees backup behind the plate as he slashed .301/.370/.432 but with 23-year-old J.R. Murphy putting up solid numbers in his absence, the 28-year-old became expendable. In Wilson the Yanks get another left-handed option out of the bullpen that can also get righties out with regularity, with just a .201 batting average against versus righties in 2014. He put together a great 2013 campaign with a 2.08 ERA in 58 outings, but last season served as more of a regression to the mean with a 4.20 ERA and a spike in his BB/9 rate. In reality, Wilson's true value probably lies somewhere in between the two but the Yankees will have to hope it's a bit closer to the 2013 production.
Kelley posted his second consecutive season with a mid-4.00 ERA, and though he temporarily filled in for the injured David Robertson in the closer role and had impressive strikeout numbers yet again (striking out at least 30% of the batters that he faced in both 2013 and 2014), he was shipped off to San Diego where he should be able to enjoy better luck in the pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Barbato is an interesting prospect as he struggled mightily at High-A in 2013 to the tune of a 5.01 ERA and 33 walks in 49 appearances, but was much better at Double-A last season with a 2.87 ERA, 16 saves, and 33 strikeouts in 27 games. He'll likely return to Double-A to start 2015.
Phelps was pressed into a starting role for much of the season due to the aforementioned injury woes to the rest of the rotation, and filled in respectably with a 4.28 ERA as a starter. With all the additions made to the pen over the offseason, Phelps was sent off to Miami where he'll likely reprise a similar role as an option as both a starter and reliever. Moving Prado was a bit more surprising, as the 31-year-old figured to slot in as the team's starting second baseman and was coming off of a strong second half after being traded to the Yankees with a .316/.336/.541 line and seven homers in just 37 games in the Bronx. In his absence they'll have to lean on Stephen Drew or either of the promising prospect duo of Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder to man second.
In return, Eovaldi should slot into the back end of the rotation as the No. 4 or No. 5 starter, at least until Ivan Nova comes back as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. He put together a strong 2013 campaign with a 3.39 ERA, but that total rose by nearly a full run as he gave up an NL-worst 223 hits in 2014. Jones will serve as the primary backup to the oft-injured Mark Teixeira as well as possibly a platoon role at DH, and the short porch out in right field should provide a decent opportunity for the 33-year-old to slug at least 15 home runs for the seventh straight season.
Traded Shane Greene to the Tigers in a three-team deal that netted them Didi Gregorious (Diamondbacks)
Greene was a pleasant surprise in 2014, pressed into major league action with all the injuries to the rotation. Not a highly touted prospect, he posted an impressive 3.78 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 15 games (14 starts) and was originally slated to compete for a spot at the end of the rotation in spring training.
While he might not be able to replace Derek Jeter and the impact he had over the years, Gregorious figures to be an immediate upgrade defensively. His bat is still a work in progress, particularly against lefties against whom he owns a .184/.257/.233 career slash line. His inability to hit southpaws will likely lead to a platoon with Brendan Ryan, but Gregorious should still see the bulk of the starts against righties and could earn more playing time as the season progresses.
It wasn't long ago that Banuelos was considered the top prospect in the Yankees' system, but after Tommy John surgery and only middling numbers in Double-A upon his return, they decided to cut bait. Shreve had a sensational major league debut with the Braves last season, working to a 0.73 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 15 appearances. He'll provide another left-handed option out of the bullpen if he makes the Opening Day roster, but he could also spend the beginning of the season back down in the minors. Carpenter has strung together a pair of impressive seasons in a row as he worked out of the Atlanta bullpen, compiling a 2.63 ERA in 126.2 innings in that span. The back end of the Yankees bullpen is mostly accounted for, but he should be a solid option if he takes on a sixth or seventh inning role.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP)
There are no real positional battles at play here, as the early indications have been that the Yankees will rely on a platoon at shortstop and expect Headley to man the everyday job at third. It's possible A-Rod could start fulltime, but Jones' lifetime numbers against righties of a .267/.333/.479 line with good power will likely present more value than the soon-to-be 40-year-old particularly after an entire season away from the game.
The order of the rotation may end up changing before the start of the season as Sabathia is clearly nowhere near the pitcher he used to be and is coming off season-ending knee surgery, but the main question here is health. The Yankees and Tanaka elected to forgo Tommy John surgery after a partially torn UCL injury, so the potential that he'll ultimately have to go under the knife at any given point is always there, and Pineda appeared in just 13 games last season after missing all of 2012 and 2013 with injuries. Ivan Nova is expected to return in May or June, and should slot into the rotation when he's back.
Closer: Both Betances and Miller will enter spring training with the opportunity to earn the ninth inning job, though neither is particularly experienced at recording the final three outs. Both own just one save to their names and while there has been some speculation about a platoon between the two, one of them will likely emerge as the team's closer. Betances probably enters camp with the slight edge after his impressive rookie season with a dominant 13.5 K/9 and a 1.64 FIP to accompany his 1.40 ERA.
Key Bullpen Members: The loser of that competition will assume the primary eighth inning duties, a position they both excelled in last season. Either way, the Yankees will have one of the top setup men in the game.
Another interesting piece in the bullpen is Adam Warren, who is preparing for spring training as a starting pitcher. He was excellent as a reliever in 2014, mostly working in the seventh or eighth inning, as he put up the best numbers of his brief career with a 2.97 ERA (2.89 FIP), a high strikeout rate, low walk and home run numbers, and three saves for good measure. If they deem he's more useful working out of the bullpen, Warren should slot in as a solid late inning pitcher who could pick up the occasional save in the event neither Betances nor Miller were available.
Lastly, David Carpenter also figures to work his way into meaningful situations after the Yankees gave up Manny Banuelos to acquire him. The past two seasons, he's posted a FIP below 3.00 and strikeout numbers that hover around 10 per nine innings and features a fastball that averages just over 95 MPH. He won't factor much into the ninth inning or beyond, but he's got good control and should pick up a fair share of holds.
What should I expect from Masahiro Tanaka?
Despite suffering a partially torn UCL in the summer, Tanaka was able to return to make two starts before the end of the season. Though he was lit up in the latter of the two to the tune of seven runs (five earned) in just 1.2 innings, it was encouraging to see him back on the mound without any mechanical issues nonetheless. He sported a 2.51 ERA before getting injured and finished the season averaging more than a strikeout per inning despite lower totals in his last few starts, so there's every reason to believe the 26-year-old can return to being a Cy Young candidate in 2015 if he's healthy. Therein lies the catch though, as Tanaka is ranked closer to 100 than anywhere near a top pick in many preseason rankings due to the lingering fear of injury. The possibility of having to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery will linger over his head at any given moment, so it really comes down to how big a risk owners are willing to take to get a pitcher of his caliber. If Tanaka is still available in the middle rounds of the draft, it could be worth taking a flier on his health, but it's definitely a high-risk, high-reward proposition.
Can Brett Gardner keep up his uptick in power and will it continue to affect his average?
Gardner smashed a career-high 17 homers in 2014, more than double his previous best, but his average dropped with it as he slashed .256/.327/.422 with his lowest average and OBP since his rookie season. Fantasy owners were obviously pleased with the power numbers, but can he keep it up again in 2015, and if so, what would it mean for his already declining ability to hit for average? For starters, he had a BABIP of .305 last season which, while not horrible, was down significantly from his 2012 and 2013 numbers when his batting average was .323 and .273 respectively. Especially when factoring in his speed, it's not far-fetched to think that his batting average could improve with some better luck this season.
As for his power, the short porch in right field will always provide the opportunity for a lefty to steal a few home runs on what would otherwise be flyouts or doubles, but even considering that Gardner was still fairly lucky to hit 17 long balls last season. Seven of those were classified as "Just Enough" by home run trackers, and given that he had just 23 career home runs prior to last season, it's not unreasonable to expect him to be unable to replicate his 2014 season in that department.
Despite losing David Robertson and not having anyone with more than four career saves on the roster with which to replace him, the bullpen should be a strong point this season. Miller and Betances will form one of the most formidable duos however they are deployed. Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda put together superb seasons in the Yankee debuts in 2014 when healthy, and if the two can stay on the mound all year the front end of the rotation could also be among the league's best.
Run-scoring could pose some problems as the Yankees did little to improve upon an offense that was 13th in the AL in runs last year. They've made very few additions to the lineup, and while Derek Jeter wasn't exactly lighting it up from the plate in his final season, Didi Gregorious is a step down from even that level of production. While they hope that several of their older players simply had down years in 2014, much of the lineup has seen their best baseball behind them.
Rising:Michael Pineda – It may be hard to get excited by someone whose health has limited him to just 13 appearances in the past three seasons, but Pineda has flashed undeniable talent when he's been able to stay on the field. If his health can hold up-admittedly a big "if" at this stage as he's been unable to prove it can-Pineda could emerge as a true ace quality pitcher on the staff. In his 13 starts last season, he posted a 1.89 ERA and 0.83 WHIP and had fantastic control as he walked just seven batters to go along with a decent 7.0 K/9. His fastball lost over two MPH from his rookie season, but with more regular work under his belt, and at just 26 years old, he could bring that number up a bit closer to his 94.6 MPH in 2011.
Declining: Mark Teixeira - It's not as though this is a new development as the first baseman hasn't hit higher than .256 since his first season in pinstripes back in 2009 after being a career .290 hitter before signing with the Yankees, but 2014 was his worst season to date. His health remains a constant concern as he hasn't made it to 125 games in any of the past three seasons, and his power is starting to go with it. Though he still hit 22 homers last season, it was the lowest output of his career and just the second time in a mostly full season since his rookie year that he failed to get to 30, along with his 2012 season when he hit 24. He'll be 35 in April, and there's no reason to expect his ability to hit for average, power, or stay healthy will reverse its recent course.
Sleeper: Carlos Beltran - It's difficult to spot many sleepers on the roster and while a soon-to-be 38-year-old coming off his worst career season doesn't exactly scream sleeper, Beltran should be in for some sort of rebound this season after playing with bone spurs in his throwing elbow for almost the entirety of 2014. In his last fully healthy season in 2013, Beltran slashed .296/.339/.491 with 24 homers and 84 RBI, and while he may not put up quite those numbers again, he should definitely improve upon his 15 homers and .233/.301/.402 line.
Supersleeper: Jose Pirela/Rob Refsnyder - It's not a guarantee either make the Opening Day roster, but after Stephen Drew's dreadful 2014 campaign, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Yankees looked to either one of the youngsters for help. Both have been very impressive at every level in the minors and can make an impact this year.
Luis Severino, RHP - Severino made it as high as Double-A last season and continued to impress in his six starts there as he worked to a 2.52 ERA and had a 10.4 K/9 to go with just a 2.2 BB/9. He'll be 21-years-old entering the 2015 season and has had only the six appearances worth of experience at Double-A or higher, so it's unlikely that he'll make the jump to the majors this season but he's encountered few problems in climbing up the ranks so far, so look for him to continue that trend at Double-A or Triple-A this year. If he can continue the progress he's made up to this point, a 2016 major league debut seems like a real possibility.
Aaron Judge, OF - Judge put together a great rookie season, hitting .308/.419/.486 and mashing 17 home runs as he split time with Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. The 22-year-old also had an impressive showing at the Arizona Fall League that included Player of the Week honors in the league's fourth week. The 6-foot-7 prospect shot up lists with his impressive rookie campaign and now has the distinction of being the Yankees' top ranked position player prospect. He should get a chance at Double-A this season, but the majors are still a couple of seasons away.
Greg Bird, 1B - Bird split time between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2014, putting up a combined line of .271/.376/.472 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI. While his average took a step back after the promotion, hitting just .253 in 27 games at Double-A, he found a resurgence in his power that saw him swat 20 homers in 2013. He followed up his 2014 campaign by earning MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League as he hit .313/.391/.556 with six homers and 21 RBI in just 26 games. At 22-years-old, Bird should start 2015 back at Double-A Trenton and figures to be a possibility as the first baseman of the future once Mark Teixeira's tenure in the Bronx comes to an end.
Ian Clarkin, LHP - Clarkin spent the majority of 2014 at Low-A Charleston, compiling a 3.21 ERA in 15 starts and one relief appearance there with strong strikeout and walk ratios of 9.1 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. The 2013 first-round pick has a solid, low-90s fastball and also has a curveball and changeup in his repertoire, but those offerings have yet to be tested at the higher levels. He's just entering his age-20 season, so there's still plenty of time for the lefty to work his way up through the system, but a major league debut in 2016 remains a possibility if he can continue to impress throughout the minors.
Rob Refsnyder, 2B - Entering the offseason, Refsnyder was considered a possible option to fill the void at second base that was never really filled after the departure of Robinson Cano in 2013. He had a great first half of the season in 2014 at Double-A Trenton, slashing .342/.385/.548, then continued to impress after earning a promotion to Triple-A as he hit .300/.389/.456 with eight homers in 77 games. Despite his promise, the Yankees elected to re-sign Stephen Drew as the starter at second, but Refsnyder should get a chance to join the big league club at some point this season.